“A pet is an island of sanity in what appears to be an insane world. Whether a dog, cat, bird, fish, turtle, or what have you, one can rely upon the fact that one’s pet will always remain a faithful, intimate, non-competitive friend, regardless of the good or ill fortune life brings us.”
–Boris Levinson, PsyD, Child Psychologist
Any animal can be a therapy pet, but put thought into finding the ideal pet
It depends on your child’s individual needs and his or her innate appreciation of or connection with the creature. Parents often think of furry animals like dogs or cats or “pocket pets” as the best therapy animals. Dogs and cats are the most common, but they are not the only effective options. (And some are problematic: perhaps a family dog or cat is of no interest to your child, or is stressful because its behavior–easily agitated cats and chronically fussy dogs aren’t therapeutic!
What fascinates your child? What do they want–what creature(s) are they drawn to? And are you willing to take care of this pet? Your child’s therapy pet is not a lesson in responsibility… though that may be an outcome someday. The pet is a therapist first, not a teaching tool. Since you may be the responsible one, the pet must work for your needs and household too.
The right creature will reduce your child’s stress and continually delight them in some way.
Dogs and cats
Under the best circumstances, the right dog or cat will choose your child, calming them down or drawing them out of their shell. Dogs and cats are ideal for symptoms of anxiety, autism spectrum disorders, or depression. The right dog or cat is calm, loyal, and patient, and helps an insecure child or one who can’t handle emotional demands. Dogs also support physical exercise, and provide opportunities for significant life lessons.
True story – Some juvenile prison systems have dog programs, where the inmate is assigned a troubled shelter dog to train and teach appropriate dog behavior. Young inmates often empathize with a dog’s abuse history, and training the dog helps them learn patience, forbearance, and anger management. The trained dogs are them adopted out to the community. A program I personally know about has had very positive outcomes.
Pocket pets help children who like touch, and bring out a child’s nurturing side. Small animals can also be playful and amusing–ferrets have especially silly antics. It’s important the pet likes to be held, but it’s also important to prevent it from escaping and hiding. Their small size and habitat needs are better for small living spaces, and they can go anywhere with the child in a small carrier. A concern may be their shorter lifespans. Is your child able to handle loss and learn from it?
Birds are smart ‘pocket pets’ and very loyal to the person they bond with. A bird that’s purchased young or been hand-fed as a chick is tame and will readily perch on a child’s shoulder or finger… or happily hide out in a pocket. Most birds can be taught words, whistles, or even songs in human language. They are pretty, charming, highly interactive, and long-lived. Birds are good for depressed children who need energy and stimulation, and children with ADHD who need attention and interaction. Like a pocket pet, a bird can also travel with a child in a small carrier.
Reptiles aren’t often considered as therapy pets, but reptile lovers will tell you that they are indeed therapeutic and have inidividual personalities. Most are quite beautiful. Many like to be held and carried.
“She fell asleep in my shirt and nobody saw her. I noticed I was able to communicate with other people without problems. When I started to feel anxiety I put my hand over her and it calmed me down… I was able to go in [a store], do what I needed to do and get out without a panic attack.”
–Teen with social anxiety disorder speaking about her Bearded Dragon.
Ask if a pet store will allow your child to hold one of their reptiles for sale. Common pet store lizards that are good for children are: leopard geckos, bearded dragons, and iguanas (which need lots of handling at first). Like other small animals, reptiles can escape. Turtles are usually easy to find, but not lizards or snakes. There are lizard leashes on the market for this reason. Most snakes available on the market like to be held, or will accept it if handled often.
Beautiful calming aquariums are excellent sources of visual delight and serenity. There is a reason aquariums are placed in waiting rooms and in psychiatric hospital settings. They provide gentle entrancing movement in a miniature natural world—they are healing like Nature is healing. An aquarium is good for children with intense anxiety they can’t express, often with schizophrenic or autistic symptoms. The soft bubbling sound can be calming because it is steady and hides noises that may overstimulate a child who’s grappling with a stream of upsetting thoughts. Read more about “calming rooms” and how visual and audio environments help children with tantrums, “Calming room ideas to prevent tantrums in autism and other disorders.”
Insects (yes, insects)
I have two stories about therapy with insects
True story – A depressed 9-year-old boy was regularly teased at school, then came home to a single mother who was always too distracted by dating concerns to spend time with him. His father found a second wife and started a new family and showed little interest in him. The boy was smart and very interested in science. He befriended a neighbor who kept hissing cockroaches to feed her lizards, and he would visit often and ask to hold a roach and pet it to make it hiss. The neighbor allowed the boy to borrow one to take to school for show-and-tell, which he brought along in a plastic container. The students were both fearful and intensely curious about this giant roach. Except for the squeamish, everyone wanted to pet it to make it hiss. He became the coolest kid in class. His teacher was impressed because he told the story about hissing cockroaches, where they were from, and how they were part of a forest ecosystem. He stopped being teased, and his teacher gave him more attention with science studies… all thanks to a lowly roach.
True story – An 11–year-old boy with ADHD found a praying mantis in his backyard and picked it up. He knew from school it wouldn’t bite, and that it caught and ate other insects. He wandered around nearby homes looking for bugs to feed it. When he caught something, he enjoyed watching the mantis snatch the bug from his finger and eat it with gross crunching sounds and goo…. awesome for a kid like him. He was allowed to keep the mantis in an empty aquarium. As Nature has it, it died in the Fall. His parents, however, purchased mantis eggs from a nursery to populate the yard the next summer. When they hatched, the boy spent hours amusing himself by finding and feeding the baby mantis population,and watching them grow to adulthood. It reduced the hours he’d spend indoors on video games,and connected him with nature outdoors.